Wednesday, 16 December 2020

REVIEW: Robinson Crusoe at the Theatre Royal Plymouth

Thanks to the National Lottery, producer Michael Harrison & QDOS and the Sun Saver free tickets scheme it was with some excitement and anticipation we travelled down to Plymouth in Devon to see our first Christmas Pantomime of the reduced season and a rarely seen title of Robinson Crusoe. How appropriate to go in search of Crusoe in a city associated with Alexander Selkirk, the 18th century shipwrecked survivor on whom Daniel Defoe based his famous story and to stand on Plymouth Hoe on a windy December evening before the show gazing out at the ocean. However, that was as close to the original story that we got as this stripped back production borrows the title only to link a series of familiar routines in a music hall style show, but at least it was live theatre and for that we must be thankful.

The Theatre Royal has a wonderful modern spacious 1300 seat auditorium but, on this occasion, the ultra-cautious management can only make available every other row and leave two empty seats between each group in the filled rows. It inevitably mutes the atmosphere. They also dispense with all bar and café sales and programme and merchandising sales therefore taking no ancillary income and are careful to release the audience at the end on a row-by-row basis. There is no interval either in the 80-minute show to avoid queues at the toilets (which are open). It is a very safe feeling environment for the face covered audience.

The production too is forced to adopt these safety protocols with all shouts out and responses eliminated from the script, no songsheet, no high energy “12 days” or “if I were not upon the stage” routines and no slosh scene. Social distancing is maintained on stage throughout which usually leads to the performers standing in a straight line across the stage! Staging is minimalist too with a couple of cloths, no costumes changes and no TwinFX special effects to amaze us, minimising the backstage crew. We sense that the straight jacket of the safety protocols and the emotions of being back on stage in front of an audience almost restrains the performers. The fast-paced show feels rushed as if they are keen to get through the show as quickly as possible and some jokes get lost in the dash or are drowned out by the band in the orchestra pit.

It feels churlish to criticise because we are also grateful to be back in a live show and fully appreciate the effort of cast, crew and front of house to get this show on stage. They are a talented cast with plenty of Pantomime pedigree and we know what they are capable of. Les Dennis as Mrs Crusoe and Connor McIntyre as Captain Cockles were magnificent as the Ugly Sisters in Manchester in 2018 and here, they team up with the daft west country comic Andy Ford in a series of well-worn routines including Mastermind (“What is the capital of Poland? P”), the music lip sync sketch and the tongue twister of “Susy sells sushi on Saturdays”. The best innovation of the night is replacing the usual call out “will you be in my gang?” with “every time I come on give me a little wave”!

They are supported by Simon Webbe (of Blue fame) as Robinson and Charlotte Haines as Polly who get to duet to the Ariane Grande hit “One Last time”, a catchy song that we hummed all the way home! The Timbuktu Tumblers do their usual acrobatic, skipping and limbo routines with great energy and skill as interludes between the scenes. Best of all is Jennie Dale as the Pirate Queen who throws herself into the role with the support of three uncredited mermaid dancers. Oh, how we longed to boo her. Also uncredited was the Spirit of the Ocean (Emily Beth Harrington) who got to lead the closing especially written song “Pantoland” before an emotional heartfelt farewell from the stage. If only we had had a programme or cast list, we could give her and the creative team the credit they are due for getting the show on stage at all.

This is not the usual large scale QDOS pantomime but a bold attempt to put a show on at short notice in a safe way for audience, cast, crew, and front of house staff. Since we spent not one penny in the venue with the free Sun Saver tickets it represents the best value pantomime we will ever see and on the journey home we were already looking forward to 2021 when these performers and their audiences we hope can let rip and share the fully joyous pantomime experience. In the meantime, we should support their endeavour and thank the National Lottery for at least giving some parts of the country a traditional Christmas family outing.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★
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